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Witchboard (Blu-ray)

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Witchoard (Blu-ray)Starring Tawny Kitaen, Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, James Quinn

Directed by Kevin Tenney

Distributed by The Scream Factory


The conceit of any good horror film is to prey upon man’s primal fears, using them as a tool to instill terror. Usually, though not always, the best examples of this are those films that are formed on the basis of some distorted reality. Haunted houses, ghosts, spiritual encounters, possession, witchcraft, black magic – these are concepts very much rooted in the real world because many people claim to have encountered them. Movies about vampires, or werewolves, or various creatures can be very effective in their own right, but there’s a certain chill to films when you think the premise could happen to you after leaving the theater. One of the most infamous fears is that of witches and witchcraft; black magic used to conjure up evil spirits intent on harming the living. This goes back to the days of the witch trials, when many (very likely innocent) people were tortured and burned alive for fear they might be a servant of Satan. It is perhaps one of the oldest, yet still modern, fears because there is still a majority that believes in a Heaven and Hell; in God and in Satan. And that fear that Old Scratch can influence the world of the living is still palpable to some. So, first-time writer & director Kevin Tenney hit the nail on the head when he came up with a strong concept for his first major film, Witchboard (1986). Using not only the fear of evil forces, but also the seemingly innocent “game” of Ouija, Tenney auspiciously debuted his dark, character driven film to audiences nearly thirty years ago. It hasn’t lost any of its impact all these years later, still playing as a straight-up tale of possession and evil.

Linda (Tawny Kitaen) and Jim (Todd Allen) are throwing a party at their home with a big group of friends. Jim is a little ticked off because Linda invited her ex-boyfriend, Brandon (Stephen Nichols), who also happens to be Jim’s former best friend. When the party starts to fizzle, Brandon pulls out a Ouija board and claims he uses it to communicate with David, the spirit of a 10-year-old boy who died years ago. Jim, drunk and feeling like being a prick, taunts both David’s spirit and causes it to angrily pop Brandon’s car tire. He hitches a ride home, but leaves the Ouija board behind. Linda becomes fascinated with the board, deciding to use it alone to see if she can speak to David. It works, and soon she’s communicating with David night and day. But it isn’t actually David she’s speaking with; it’s Malfeitor (J.P. Luebsen), a malevolent spirit that wants to possess her mind & body. Reluctantly, Brandon & Jim must work together to discover what has overtaken Linda before they both lose her for good.

Witchboard is ostensibly a horror movie, but the film itself focuses more on characters and relationships than outright scares and gore. I think only three people die throughout the course of the film. Our leading trio of Linda, Jim, and Brandon has a complex history, but the film doesn’t need to overly explain past events for viewers to feel caught up. There’s great shorthand in their dialogue that paints the whole picture. What’s most important is that there’s a sense of investment in these characters, so we care when someone dies. It’s isn’t just a stalk-and-slash scenario, with Malfeitor popping up every ten minutes to kill another tangentially-related person. He’s only shown twice, and his essence as seen on screen is done wholly through Kitaen’s work. Tenney paints Linda as a gorgeous catch of a woman, so it makes perfect sense that a love triangle could drive a wedge between two best friends. There’s a sense that they’ve been reluctantly hating each other for years, but the machismo in both (mostly Jim, though) makes them just as reluctant to work together until Jim fully understands it’s for Linda’s benefit.

All of the leading actors turn in solid performances; their emotions feel authentic. Brandon is the most sensible of the group, understanding the power that Ouija can hold and respecting the boundaries that exist between the living and the dead. Jim doesn’t hold that kind of reverence for the board, or anything else, really. It’s established that his family are a bunch of do-nothing drunks, with Jim right in line to become “just like his old man”. He’s a dick, but he’s kind of a charming dick. He can hardly say a sentence with throwing in some off-hand, sarcastic quip, but there’s a playful way about him that makes it seem OK. Plus, he was continually cracking me up with his ability to sneak up behind everyone in the film at some point, scaring the shit out of them. Linda is less focused upon than the two male leads, but how can Tawny Kitaen NOT be memorable in a role during her heyday? She’s not only gorgeous; she’s got some acting chops to boot, too. Then there’s Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite), the eclectic, eccentric psychic who has a very small, very memorable role as a medium who attempts to contact David. She is right on the edge of absolute annoyance, smacking her gum and cracking the worst “psychic humor” jokes you’ll hear outside of an episode of Long Island Medium (I’m only guessing, since I don’t watch that crap). But she’s smart, and we all know how well smart characters do in horror films.

The film’s most effective scenes are those involving the Ouija board. Now, I realize it can be hard to find something made by Parker Brothers scary, but remember that there is some ancient history to the board. Similar methods of communicating with the dead showed up in China around 1100 AD. The board that eventually wound up in Parker Brothers’ roster of “fun” games was created around the turn of the 19th century as a novelty. Even the etymology of the name has an apocryphal origin – one maker claims it was an Egyptian word he learned from using the board, another (more widely accepted) origin was that it combines the French and German words for “yes”. Whatever the case may be, the board remains a symbol of the potential to reach through unseen doorways and converse with the dead, regardless of how inane that possibility truly is. But people still attach a certain stigma to it, either to dismiss it as a child’s toy or a vessel of Beelzebub. And it’s the latter connotation that makes the conjuring scenes in this film feel sinister and tense.

Witchboard arrives on Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 1080p image that is a considerable boost over the previous DVD. There is a fine grain structure on display here – so fine you might almost think some DNR was applied to get it so smooth. But there are no traces of DNR, or any other sort of manipulation, so it’ll get chalked up to pristine source elements. This print is in great shape, with only a minor amount of white flecks seen on screen intermittently. Color saturation is very good, with many hues getting a nice pop in well-lit shots. As with most low budget productions, the real impressive visuals occur in daylight, when sharpness is at its peak and detail is finer than ever. Once we lose the light, many of the smaller details are lost to shadow. The image never gets murky or hard to follow in the darkness, though. Honestly, for a relatively cheap film made in 1986 it looks far better than anyone is likely to be expecting. Don’t expect to be thrilled and chilled by the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is evenly balanced in the mix, never losing ground to sound effects or score, which was provided by Kevin Tenney’s brother, Dennis, as it was in “Night of the Demons” (1988), too. There’s a nice weight to the soundtrack, and although it’s not a multi-channel affair it can be just as easy to find yourself immersed in this mix. Fidelity is strong across the board. Chances are this sounds better on modern home theater systems, with a modern lossless audio track, than it ever did in theaters. Subtitles are included in English.

Witchboard isn’t a Scream Factory Collector’s Edition, but you wouldn’t know that from the exhaustive list of extras. The disc includes two audio commentaries, a documentary, featurettes, interviews, trailers, outtakes, and much more.

The first audio commentary is a new track featuring writer/director Kevin Tenney and actors Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite, and James Quinn. This is a casual, loose track that is basically moderated by Tenney, who also does most of the talking. The usual set anecdotes and fond reflections make up the discussion, which is lively. Secondly, we get the old DVD audio commentary with writer/director Kevin Tenney, executive producer Walter Josten, and producer Jeff Geoffray. With such a technical team, it’s no surprise this is more a nuts-and-bolts of making a film track than anything else. Still, lots of worthy information is to be found if you’re into that kind of thing.

Progressive Entrapment – The Making of Witchboard is a documentary that runs for just over 45 minutes. Scream Factory tracked down all of the film’s major players, and the notable minors, to deliver a comprehensive look at how this film was conceived, funded, and received. The original title Kenney wanted was Ouija, which is what they shot it under. Allen and Nichols have some funny set stories. Kitaen still looks incredible, even with the obvious work she’s had done. This covers all the bases. Vintage Making of Witchboard is a featurette that is less a making-of and more like someone with a camcorder decided to film random scenes of the production. And it’s awesome because it was 1986. Cast Interviews is over 20 minutes over extended interviews with the film’s principals that were briefly glimpsed in the vintage making-of segment. On Set with Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols features even more interview footage with both actors. On Set with the Makers of Witchboard is a group interview with Tenney and Geoffray. Both are interviewed on the film’s set, with each projecting a different level of excitement. A Tenney shoot looks like it was a fun madhouse back in those days based on his personality. Life on Set, just as the title might imply, is more footage someone shot using a handheld camcorder featuring a typical day on the set. Constructing the World of Witchboard sounds like it might be more exciting than literally watching set construction workers assemble pieces of wood and scaffolding and stuff. It is not, but I do think it’s cool Scream Factory included every odd-and-end they could find for this picture. Rounding out the disc is a reel of outtakes, behind-the-scenes and promo art still galleries, and the theatrical trailer. There’s no fun reversible cover art or slipcover, but the inner artwork does feature a sweet shot of Malfeitor swinging his trusty ax.

Witches and witchcraft are creepy, unsettling subjects, so Kevin Tenney chose right when looking for a concept to kick off his feature film career. Witchboard is a moderately thrilling trip with demonic entities, but the real heart of the story comes from the relationship of our leading triumvirate. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release not only has the best video & audio presentation the film has enjoyed, but it’s stuffed with plenty of goodies. Just give them your money.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with writer/director Kevin Tenney, and actors Stephen Nichols, Kathleen Wilhoite & James Quinn
  • Audio commentary with writer/director Kevin Tenney, executive producer Walter Josten, and producer Jeff Geoffray.
  • Progressive Entrapment – The Making of Witchboard
  • Vintage Making of Witchboard
  • Cast Interviews
  • On Set with Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols
  • Life on Set
  • Constructing the World of Witchboard
  • Outtakes
  • Behind the Scenes gallery
  • Promo Art gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
    Film:
    3 1/2 out of 5

    Special Features:
    4 out of 5

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Before We Vanish Review – A Quirky and Original Take on Alien Invasions

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Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa

Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa


During the J-horror rampage of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (aka Pulse). A dark, depressing, and morose tale of ghosts that use the internet to spread across the world, the film’s almost suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere pervaded across every frame of the film. Because of my love of this film, I was eager to see the director’s upcoming movie Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (aka Before We Vanish), which follows three aliens who recently arrived on Earth and are preparing to bring about an alien invasion that will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be barely a horror title but was instead a quirky and surreal dramedy that tugged at my heartstrings.

Admittedly, I was thrown completely for a loop as the film begins with a scene that feels perfectly at home in a horror film. Akira (Tsunematsu), a teenage girl, goes home and we enter moments later to blood splashed on the walls and floor and bodies strewn about. However, the disturbing visuals are spun around as the young girl walks down a highway, her clothes and face streaked with blood, Yusuke Hayashi’s music taking on a lighthearted, almost jaunty attitude. From there, we learn of the other two aliens (yes, she’s an alien and it’s not a secret or a twist, so no spoilers there): Amano (Takasugi), who is a young man that convinces a sleazy reporter, Sakurai (Hasegawa), of his true form and tasks Sakurai with being his guide, and Shinji (Matsuda), the estranged husband of Narumi (Nagasawa).

What sets these aliens, and their mission, apart from other invasion thrillers is their means of gathering information. They’re not interested in meeting leaders nor do they capture people for nefarious experimentations. Rather, they steal “concepts” from the minds of people, such as “family”, “possession”, or “pest”. Once these concepts are taken, the victim no longer has that value in their mind, freed from its constraints.

While this may seem like a form of brainwashing, Kurosawa instead plays with the idea that maybe knowing too much is what holds us back from true happiness. A man obsessed with staking claim to his family home learns to see the world outside of its walls when “possession” is no longer a part of his life. A touchy boss enters a state of child-like glee after “work” has been taken. That being said, there are other victims who are left as little more than husks.

Overly long at 130 minutes, the film does take its time showing the differences between the aliens and their individual behaviors. Amano and Akira are casually ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to send a beacon to begin the alien invasion, no matter how many must die along the way, while Shinji is the curious and almost open-minded one, whose personal journey finds him at one point asking a priest to envision and describe “love”, a concept that is so individualistic and personal that it can’t be taken, much less fathomed, by this alien being. While many of these scenes are necessary, they could have easily been edited down to shave 10-15 minutes, making the film flow a bit more smoothly.

While the film begins on a dark note, there is a scene in the third act that is so pure and moving that tears immediately filled my eyes and I choked up a little. It’s a moment of both sacrifice and understanding, one that brings a recurring thread in the story full circle.

With every passing minute, Before We Vanish makes it clear that it’s much more horror-adjacent than horror. An alien invasion thriller with ultimate stakes, it will certainly have appeal to genre fans. That being said, those who go in expecting action, violence, and terror will certainly be disappointed. But those whose mind is a bit more open to a wider range of possibilities will find a delightful story that attempts to find out what it means to be human, even if we have to learn the lesson from an alien.

  • Before We Vanish
4.0

Summary

Before We Vanish is a beautiful, wonderful tale that explores what it means to be human when faced with the threat of extinction.

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Delirium Review – Bros, Cameras And A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On

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Starring Mike C. Manning, Griffin Freeman, Ryan Pinkston

Directed by Johnny Martin


When will these testosterone-overloaded frat bros with cameras ever learn that pissing off the evil souls of the departed all in the name of amusement won’t get you anywhere but wrecked? Same goes for filmmakers: when will they learn that found-footage exploits set in a house of pure sadism are something of a wrung-out affectation? Oh well, as long as people keep renting them, they’ll continue to get manufactured…which might or might not be to the benefit of the horror film-watching populous.

Delirium opens with a poor lad, strapped with a GoPro, running for his life through a labyrinth of haunted territory, praying for an escape…and it’s a foregone conclusion as to what happens to this trespassing individual. We then relocate our focus towards a collection of (ahem), “gentlemen” self-titled as The Hell Gang, and their escapades are about as profound as their grasp on the English language and its verbiage. The words “dude”, creepy”, and the term “what the fuck” are thrown about so much in this movie it’ll make your head spin to the point of regurgitation. Anyway, their interest in the home of the Brandt clan is more piqued now than ever, especially considering one of their own has gone missing, and they’ve apparently got the gonads to load up the cameras, and traverse the property after-hours, and against the warnings of the local law-enforcement, who surprisingly are just inadequate enough to ignore a dangerous situation. The cursed family and the residence has quite the illustrious and bleak history, and it’s ripe for these pseudo-snoopers to poke around in.

Usually I’m curb-stomping these first person POV movies until there’s nothing left but a mash of blood, snot and hair left on the cement, but Martin’s direction takes the “footage” a little bit outside of the box, with steadier shots (sometimes) and a bit more focus on the characters as they go about their business. Also, there are a few genuinely spooky scenes to speak of involving the possession of bodies, but there really isn’t much more to crow about, as the plot’s basically a retread of many films before it, and with this collection of borderline-douches manning the recording equipment, it’s a sad state of affairs we’re in that something such as this has crept its way towards us all again. I’m always down for jumping into a cold grave, especially when there could be a sweet prize to be dug up in all that dirt, but Delirium was one of those movies that never let you find your footing, even after you’ve clawed your way through all of the funereal sediment – take a hard pass on this one.

 

  • Film
2.0

Summary

Got about a half-dozen bros with cameras and a wanton will to get slaughtered on camera, all the while repetitively uttering the same phrases all damn day long? Then my friends, you’ve got yourself a horror movie!

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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility

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Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita

Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita


The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.

The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.

The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.

From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.

The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.

Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.

The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.

  • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
2.0

Summary

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.

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